The Sea is Dead, Long Live the Sea

It seemed a mirage up until I dove into it, Aydarkul, a lake in the middle of the desert. We had driven for hours through the Kyzyl Kum, an area so arid even camels struggle to find sustenance. Then between two sand dunes, it winked at us, a blue body of water under a cloudless blue sky. A lake teeming with fish, migratory birds and even a few people, come to enjoy nature’s bounty. Meanwhile, 400 miles to the northeast, its predecessor the Aral sea lies in its death throes, with only a sad stone memorial standing witness to its former prosperity.

As new life emerges in this wasteland, perhaps we should stop trying to save the Aral Sea by pouring more concrete and digging more canals. Rather, lets take advantage of nature’s resilience and try not to make the same mistakes again.

The locals claim, and research confirms, that like the Salton sea lake Aydarkul resulted from an accident. In the 60s, soviets build a dam on the Syr Darya, and when floods cam they diverted the water into the desert. Fed by mountain streams and the occasional flood, the lake has grown ever since, a flourishing self-sustaining eco-system. The Syr Darya once fed the Aral Sea, and it’s no coincidence that as one lake shrunk, the other grew. Furthermore, it seems the Aral Sea itself is an artificial construct whose shores have fluctuated widely in response to human intervention. A dam build in the 7th century diverted the Syr Darya away from the Caspian Sea onto a new course, creating the Aral sea.

There are drowned trees underwater, b/c the Soviets tried to plant a forest before they made a lake.
Where all the water went: Lake Aydarkul

The fate of the Aral Sea warns of the excesses of human hubris. After WWII, Stalin initiated a “Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature”. Picked up by his successors, it comprised constructing a vast system of canals and dams in order to irrigate the desert. In addition to greater yields on crops, the Soviets planned to grow “white gold”, cotton. In this they largely succeeded, and to this day ‘commissar cotton’ rules the land. Unfortunately cotton is a very thirsty plant, requiring 10,000-17,000 liters of water to produce 1 kg, so there were environmental consequences.

Year after year, the Aral Sea began to shrink. In forty years it lost 80% of its volume. As the water evaporated away, excessive concentrations of fertilizer and salt poisoned the waters. The wind then picked up the desiccated soil mixed with chemicals and spread it as toxic dust. Entire communities lost their livelihoods, their children sick from bad air and water.

Aral Sea

The Shrinking Sea

Environmental and human rights groups blame cotton for this disaster. Much of the water doesn’t even make it to the fields because of inefficient irrigation practices. Poorly built canals mean up to 60% is lost en route due to evaporation and infiltration.

But did cotton really drain the Aral sea? The numbers just don’t add up. Today the independent republic of Uzbekistan produces about 654,000,000 kg of cotton. Assuming 17,000 liters of water per kilo, a high estimate that cotton required about 11 cubic km of water to produce (1km3=1 trillion liters). The Amu Darya and Syr Darya, the two rivers that feed the Aral sea, have an annual flow of 97.4kmand 37km3, respectively, which adds up to 134.4km3. Only 8% goes to cotton[1]!

So where did the rest go? I was swimming in it. When the snow melts in the spring, dams divert the surplus water artificial lakes like Aydarkul. Nature adjusted, and the birds and fish found a new home. It only remains for humans to do the same.

The World Bank, UN and half a dozen NGO’s are pouring billions of dollars into projects to ‘save’ the Aral Sea. This includes the building of massive dams but also outlandish projects like the diversion of entire rivers. Have we learned nothing? That water must come from somewhere, someone else. Human tampering with hydrology always has unintended consequences.

In the meantime, development along the banks of the Aydarkul is accelerating, with plans to build resorts, launch fishing fleets and even irrigate the surrounding steppes. Though such development is essential, it must proceed carefully and with an eye to sustainability. Rather than pour money into the Aral sea, a fraction of that amount could go into fostering sustainable development along the shores of lake Aydarkul. As for those who live along the former Aral Sea, perhaps we should encourage them to relocate to more prosperous regions, like Aydarkul, rather than ask them to wait for a miracle.

Erwin Knippenberg
The Barefoot Economist

[1] Even accounting for water ‘lost’ through infiltration, it only adds up to about 20% of the total runoff.  And that water isn’t really lost, it replenishes underground aquifers and some of it makes it to the sea


One thought on “The Sea is Dead, Long Live the Sea

  1. The locals also told us that it wasn’t just cotton, though I was skeptical at the time. Focusing resources, human, financial, and ecological, on a dying, toxic sea seems like a tremendous waste, but then there may still be communities relying on the sea or with historical connection to it, making this a political issue. I suspect as Aydarkul develops, this will change.

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